Every year the news filters through of a birder that has chosen to tackle some sort of ‘Big Year’ type challenge.
There have been the more extreme challenges such as Noah Strycker who in 2015 gave up everything to a globe-trotting big year. On a smaller scale, Trevor Hardaker is presently doing a Western Cape big year, trying to see as many birds as possible on his ‘home-turf’ over the course of the year.
There is a group of ‘purist’ birders that look down on these kinds of challenges, and in fact any sort of listing, saying that it cheapens that whole experience of watching birds. They feel somehow that it creates a shallower form of birding where it’s about the numbers and nothing more.
I have decided to undertake my own challenge this year on my home turf, and what I have discovered is that the challenge has not taken away from by birding and my love of birds, in fact it’s gone a whole lot deeper.
Rich Stallcup is quoted as saying the following in Kenn Kaufman’s book, ‘Kingbird Highway’, where Kenn shares the story of his own big year that he did in 1973, ‘‘The list total isn’t important, but the birds themselves are important. Every bird you see. So the list is a frivolous incentive for birding, but the birding itself is worthwhile. It’s like a trip where the destination doesn’t have any significance except for the fact that it makes you travel. The journey is what counts.”
My big year challenge is nowhere near as epic as Noah Stryker’s worldwide traverse or Kenn Kaufman’s cross continent hitch-hiking big year. I won’t get to see as many species as Trevor Hardaker will see in the Western Cape. But nevertheless, this is a challenge that I am enjoying and loving how it is challenging me both as a person, and as a birder.
I stay in the Sapphire Coast area on the upper-KwaZulu Natal South Coast. We have set up a Birdlasser challenge for the area. Since the challenge started the record number of species that has been seen in a year is 238 species by Tyron Dall in 2019. This may not sound like a significant number of birds but consider that the challenge area is reasonably small and only stretches about 9km inland. Although the area provides some amazing birding opportunities, there is also a fair amount of the area that is made up of rural housing.
Initially the plan was to try to see 250 species over the course of the year, but we lost just over a month of birding with the Kwa-Zulu Natal flooding. The flooding also caused damage to a lot of infrastructure, so many of the birding areas that we would have gone to before, no longer have easy access. The goal that I have now is to break Tyron’s record for the challenge – which is a lot easier to do as he is not taking part in the challenge himself. I was aiming to see at least 239 species, but Jenny Norman said that I must go for at least 240, as that is a nice clean number. My gut feel is that the 250 is a little out of reach, but you never know what could turn up in during the year in the area.
My strategy is to cover as much of the area, as often as possible, and not just recording random species, but looking to do as many Full Protocol cards for the SABAP2 project as possible over the course of the year.
I want to share how this challenge has not only allowed me to see more than 220 species in the challenge area so far this year, but also how it has allowed me to deepen my journey as a birder. Hopefully this article is practical and helps you as a birder.
I am also hoping that this challenge makes a small difference to bird conservation, as I come face to face with the challenges of things such as habitat loss over the course of the year.
The challenge has ‘three levels’ of birds, and each of these requires a slightly different approach.
1. Banker Birds
These are the species that I should almost definitely see over the course of the year.
How do I work these species out?
Firstly, I draw on my own knowledge. I have birded the area extensively since 2016 and have a fair knowledge of what birds are seen on a regular basis. These are birds that I will see without putting in too much effort (well that’s normally the case, but there is always species or two that can be tricky to find).
Secondly, I use the SABAP2 website. I start by making a grouping of all the pentads that are found in the Sapphire Coast Challenge area, this will create a list of all the species that have been seen over the years in the area. The website noted that 372 species have been recorded in the area which gives me a starting point to work from. I then go through the list and eliminate birds that I won't list such as Indian Peafowl, as well as species that I don’t think will be seen over the year. An example was a Drakensberg Prinia which I feel is a bit of a ‘sketchy’ record, as it was recorded in 2021 and I don’t recall anyone speaking about it. My banker birds are any species that have a 10 percent or higher reporting rate for the area. According to the SABAP2 list, 136 species have a 10 percent or higher reporting rate for the area.
These are birds that I feel that I should almost definitely get over the course of the year.
Some of the birds may require me to visit a certain habitat in the area or wait for the right season – but with regular atlasing I don’t doubt that I will add these species during the year.
2. The harder to find species
This is where I need to start working a little harder to see species. I still feel that most of the species that have between a 10 and 5 percent reporting rate, I should see during the year. This is where my birding knowledge has had to improve. There are species that are in this bracket that I can get fairly easily because of local knowledge – I know spots where they can be seen – but there are some that require a little more work.
One of the ways that I grow my knowledge is to speak to other birders in the area. I found out where they have seen species and asked them to let me know if anything special turns up.
The other way, which is a lot more rewarding, is a mixture of local knowledge and spending time studying a species. I will look at things such as the distribution maps, migration, and habitat to work out where and when the bird could be found in the area. I will try to work out where there would be suitable habitats in the area to find the bird. An example of this was with the African Wood Owl. It had been recorded before, with only a 0.3 percent reporting rate. I had been birding at Empisini Nature Reserve regularly and thought that it was the right habitat for the bird. I spoke to Jenny Norman who told me that the best time to see a Wood Owl was just before the sun came up. Blessing Majoka and I kitted up early one morning in some warm clothes, and after playing a little bit of call-back, three African Wood Owls responded (please note, the call-back was used very sparingly). This was not simply luck, instead it was the result of knowing the habitats found in the area and looking to find species that could be found in those habitats.
Something that this challenge has done is making me a lot more aware of habitat. I am more aware of the habitats that I find myself in and start to think of what could be possible in those places – which leads me to the third and most exciting level.
3. Never been seen before Species
It’s always exciting to hear a report of a good bird showing up in the area and experiencing the thrill of heading out to try and locate it – hoping that it hasn’t flown away. But there is nothing more rewarding than finding something yourself. The Rare Bird emails that Trevor Haraker sends out are proof that there is always the possibility of something special turning up when you are out birding. The more you get out and bird, the more chance you have of seeing something special (although all the birds that we see are special in their own way).
I haven’t been lucky enough to find a rarity in my area yet, but I have managed to find a few special species as I have been out birding. An example is a few years back I discovered a small flock of White-fronted bee-eaters, and although this is by no means a rare species, it was a first for our area and it was a little further south than it is normally found. I was not even an experienced birder at the time, I was just persistent about getting out as often as possible and birding.
One of the ways that I look to position myself with the best chances of seeing new species for the Sapphire Coast area is to go to habitats that lend themselves to special/out-of-range/rare birds showing up. I have a water treatment works that I try to visit as often as I can – I am always hoping to pick up a special wader species along the sides of the water. Tyron Dall and myself managed to see a Southern Pochard there a few years back – which as far as I recall was a new species for the area.
I also try to visit the beach at the mouth of the Illovo Estuary as often as possible, although I don’t enjoy the long walk on the beach, this again provides a location for potential new species. This is the same place that the possible Christmas Island Frigatebird was seen earlier this year by two up-country birders, but sadly even though it is in my own pentad I dipped on the bird! I also try to visit places that are conducive for different species in different seasons. An example is that I visited reserves with forests in them during winter, hoping to pick up some of the robin species.
The other way is probably the most enjoyable and it starts with a field guide and a bit of a dream. As a bird in different locations and see different species, I start to get a mental image of the habitats that they are found in. An example would be seeing African Black Duck in different rivers as I go out and bird. I will start to see the types of rivers and where they are seen in those rivers – this all goes into my memory bank and gives me a frame of reference for birding in my own area. When I see a species, I also try to note their behaviors – not only which habitat they are in, but what they are doing in that habitat.
As a page through my field guide, I note the distribution maps that are given – and start to imagine what could be seen in the challenge area. There may be a species range that extends over the challenge area that has never been seen in the area before, or they may be a species whose range is just outside of the challenge area. I then read up as I can about these species, trying to understand them as best as I can. I especially take note of the habitat that they are found in and any migration information that is relevant.
If I have seen the species before I try to remember where I have seen it before. What habitat was it found in? What altitude was I at when I saw it? I then take the knowledge that I have acquired from the book about the bird and put it together with any previous experience with the bird if I have had it and try to draw on my local knowledge of the challenge area. I ask myself; ‘Where is there habitat in the area in which the bird could possibly be found?’.
On a personal note, the one down-side to my approach is that often my atlasing is biased towards pentads where there are species that I would want to see – but I still feel that the data that is submitted carries value.
I saw a recent post of someone who had seen a bird in a place that I knew well on the KwaZulu Natal North Coast. As excited as I was that the person had seen the bird, my mind immediately started to tick over and try to work out where there could be possible habitat and favorable conditions for the bird in my area. I am pretty confident that the species will be seen in our area at some time.
Once I have done all this research I now start to plan to go out and try to locate those species. Many of them won’t be found (in fact most of them won’t be located), but there will be that special moment when research and fate come together, and I will find the species I have been looking for.
So, this is my plan of attack to hopefully see 240 species in the Sapphire Coast this year. The good thing, however, is that even if I fall short of my target, this challenge has definitely taken me deeper as a birder. It has allowed me to discover the wonderful world of birds in a way that I have not done previously, and no matter the outcome, I will come out as a better birder at the end of the year.
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Kenn Kaufman. Kingbird Highway : The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2006.